LAWRENCEVILLE -- Nick Stewart was the little boy who brought home snakes and bugs in his pocket.
Now he's the man who spends hours in the field, checking traps for new species of bees and conducting scientific sampling.
It's all part of the Georgia Gwinnett College student's research project to identify native species of bees that can supplement or even replace the commercial honeybee for crop pollination.
The research has serious implications for agriculture, Georgia's largest industry. Honeybees, the primary agents of pollination for many crops, are dying in massive numbers, threatening food production. Colony Collapse Disorder is considered the biggest threat to honeybees.
"Farmers say they have scores of bees fly out, land on their plants and drop to the ground, dead -- or they can't even fly," said Mark Schlueter, associate professor of biology at Georgia Gwinnett College who is working with Stewart on the project. "This could jeopardize the food supply of the whole planet. Also, farmers' costs go up dramatically when they have beekeepers come out with hives to help pollinate crops, and those costs are passed on to consumers."
Stewart said the project is focused on comparing the efficiency of native bees to the honeybees, which are the traditional pollinators for fruit and vegetable crop. A key aspect of the project is to find native species that can not only do the job of pollinating the crops, but also do it well.
Schlueter said most of the research being done with honeybees is trying to solve Colony Collapse Disorder. He and Stewart decided to approach the problem in a different way, looking for an alternative solution.
"We want to find out which native species are out there, how abundant they are and, if we find good pollinators, create habitats for them, even if it's just to provide piles of sand where they can nest," Schlueter said. "If a native bee could be identified to replace or supplement the commercial honeybee, then food costs would be reduced for the public."
If they are successful, Schlueter and Stewart said their research would benefit agriculture, even if a solution is found for Colony Collapse Disorder.
The duo was recently awarded a $15,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant to support their work. The grant funding will allow Schlueter and Stewart to recruit and pay more students to help with the tedious, sun-up to sun-down research, which is being conducted in four apple orchards in north Georgia.
"The biggest obstacle for us is labor," Schlueter said. "You don't need a graduate student working out in a field. You need just a lot of sweat and time and passion."
Perhaps the most important part of the project is the development of the research design. Stewart has worked to create a research design that can be replicated in other parts of the country and with other crops. Schlueter said many more regional studies will be needed to identify the different types of bees that would most efficient in different parts of the country.
"This research is extremely applied," Schlueter said. "If we don't have this knowledge, then we don't know how to fix this problem."
Schlueter credits Stewart's enthusiasm for the success of the project so far, which is in its second year.
"Nick is absolutely passionate about bees and he loves to be in the field and spend time with bees," Schlueter said. "If it wasn't for his enthusiasm, this is such a labor-intensive thing, it would start to wear you out."
Stewart said his passion for bees developed while he was a student at Penn State, which he attended through his junior year. He stopped going to college during his junior year and started working as an entomologist for a pest control company. After five years, he decided to return to college to start this research project.
Stewart selected Georgia Gwinnett College because he wanted to work with Schlueter, who has conducted research with insects in the past.
"The only reason I came to this school was to work with him," Stewart said. "He's gone from being a mentor to a friend and a co-partner. He's really taught me the other sides of studies like this, like the bureaucracy."
After Stewart graduates next year, he said he plans to attend graduate school to continue his research.